Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder, despite the Aim of the Begetter

In Elaine Scarry’s “On Beauty and Being Just”, Scarry discusses the concept of begetting beauty and how the beautiful “seems to incite, even to require, the act of replication” (Scarry, 3). Scarry points out, however, that the beauty of an object often loses its meaning when cheaply replicated because beauty is eternally sacred and unprecedented. Within these constraints, there are authentic and inauthentic forms of replication.

Since Scarry’s theory remains abstract and leaves much to clarify, allow me to provide an illustrative example: Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings, along with his own personal story, have always left on me a profound and beautiful impact. A few summers ago, when I was in Amsterdam, I visited the Van Gogh Museum. At the end of the museum, there was a gift shop; there, I bought a small mug with Van Gogh’s painting of the sunflower on it. I was fully aware that the creator of the mug was inauthentically begetting Van Gogh’s painting with the aim of satisfying consumeristic rather than personal satisfaction. This mug, however, still held beauty for me – not for its form, as in the case of the original painting, but rather for its representation. A thousand identical sunflower mugs may be neither sacred nor unprecedented, and there may very well be even cheaper replications for sale at corner stores and gas stations for tourists who did not even visit the museum. Still, the beauty contained by that $24.99 sunflower mug is silent and intangible; as Scarry writes, “the word (replication) recalls the fact that something gave rise to their creation and remains silently present in the newborn object” (10).

The beauty of the Van Gogh painting is still present in the mug. Verifying this beauty, however, is an individual task. To perceive any replicated object as beautiful, the beholder must hold emotions for the object being replicated. It is up to the object’s beholder to experience how “beauty quickens … adrenalized … makes the heart beat faster … [and] makes life more vivid, animated, living, [and] worth living” (25). One cannot feel these emotions towards an object so simple as a mug by looking to Plato’s Theory of Forms, and recognizing the mug’s ‘mug-ness’; rather, one must observe how this mug represents a less tangible source of beauty. While a mug’s form may not make one’s heart beat faster, make life more vivid, animated, living, or worth living, one’s connotation of it can be original and alive – and, thus, beautiful. Replicating beauty from an unprecedented to a replicated form transfers the beauty from the tangible to the intangible.

This clarification of inauthentic and authentic replication of beauty raises yet another problem: how does one judge another’s intention in both the creation of the replicated object and the consummation of the object? If I may suggest a solution, perhaps it is not our role to judge, or assume, another’s intentions. If someone purchases a mug with the intention of giving a easy and cheap souvenir to his or her mother-in-law, then to him or her, the mug is not an object of beauty; however, if a visitor is given tea in this mug and their mind is flooded with memories of their own trip to the museum, then to this person, this mug may have beauty.

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